You're probably tasked with strenuous multi-joint moves like squats or deadlifts to work your lower half, which can be tough on your whole body. Then, exercises like lunges add even more punishing volume. If your leg muscles are tight going into the training session, you'll be looking at even more of a challenge — and you could put yourself at risk of injury if you push too hard.
To prevent these issues, you might have a whole protocol of extra warmups for leg day. Stretch bands, foam rollers, and more can be helpful, but if you're really struggling to stretch it out, listen up: you might be focused on the wrong spot.
Sometimes it can be extra hard to get your muscles to loosen — particularly the hamstrings— no matter how much you work to foam roll or stretch them out. Why? Because the problem might actually be in your torso, according to James Cerbie, C.S.C.S., founder of Rebel Performance.
"With all of the push and pull on the body that occurs both in the gym and in everyday life, a lot of people end up in a position called bilateral extension," Your ribcage protrudes out and upward while the top of your pelvis tilts forward and down, increasing the arch in your lower back.
But why would this make your legs tight? Think about where your hamstrings are in relation to your pelvis. "When your pelvis tilts forward and down in the front, the opposite side pulls upward on the muscles in the backs of your legs," Cerbie said. So if this is happening to you, your hamstrings are already being stretched. More stretching doesn’t help this. In fact, it could make the problem worse.
What you need is to get your body into a position that allows your hamstrings to relax. You can do that with the following movement pattern from the Postural Restoration Institute. While Cerbie cautions that one given method won't work for everyone, this strategy often helps many of the athletes he trains.
First, test your hamstring flexibility by performing the straight-leg raise in the video below.
Then, perform a few repetitions of the cat cow as shown in the video below to loosen up your spine.
Get into the cat portion by arching your back, tucking your hips toward your elbows, and pressing your knees and hands into the floor. Maintain this position while you take five slow and controlled breaths. Do not return to the cow position until you’ve finished all five.
Repeat this for 2 or 3 sets. And then retest your hamstring flexibility with the straight-leg raise. You should notice a small difference in your flexibility because you've essentially pressed the "reset" button on your body, Cerbie explained.
If you're looking for more moves to stretch out your hamstrings and get them activated, give these exercises a try. Your next lower body day might not be more fun — but it could definitely be less stiff.
2. Hamstring Mobilization
Use a bench or low platform for this move. Get down on one knee, then lift the opposite leg and prop it up on the bench, keeping it straight. Once your leg is in position, lean forward and place both hands on either side of your foot, rocking side to side. Repeat 10 cycles back and forth, then switch legs.
3. Standing Hamstring Stretch
You'll also need a bench or platform for this simple stretch. Prop one leg up on the elevated surface, keeping your back leg straight. Hinge at the hip, pulling away from the heel of your elevated foot. Hold for 10 to 15 seconds, then switch legs.
4. Backward Walking Inverted Hamstring
Start in a standing position. Lift one leg straight up behind you, simultaneously hinging at the hip to lean forward, reaching straight out with the same side hand. Keep the knee of the leg bearing your weight slightly bent, working to keep your back flat. Return to the starting position before stepping backward and switching to the lifted position with the opposite leg. Repeat on both sides for 5 reps each.
5. Elevated Hamstring Walkout
Use an elevated platform or bench for this exercise. Lean your back on its surface, spreading your arms for balance, keeping your spine straight, core and glutes squeezed, and your knees bent at 90 degrees. Step out an inch at a time with each foot, keeping your torso and upper body in position, until your legs are straight. Pause at the bottom of the movement, then walk your feet back up to the starting position step by step. Perform 10 cycles.